Drive up Germantown Avenue, north past Girard, and you’ll see plenty of towing signs that don’t belong.

Take the one on the fence of an abandoned lot across the street from Al-Aqsa Mosque, for example. It warns of towing on a side of the street where parking is allowed, and there’s no driveway a car could possibly block given that no house is situated on the lot.

Tow sign

Can you park there? Who knows?

“At any point,” said Graham O’Neil, treasurer of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, “someone could get towed.”

The situation is similar to what happened at Broad and Washington last week, where a concealed sign in a vacant lot was at the root of what sure looks like a tow trap. Police have said they’re looking into that apparent scheme. Around Kensington and Fishtown, 26th District Police have also been investigating.

The problem is proof. Despite an extensive set of regulations and set punishments for violations, authorities have difficulty proving wrongdoing. Incidents often come down to a ‘he said, she said’ — and a fight with a tow company is usually more trouble than it’s worth for vehicle owners who just want their car back with the least amount of complication.

But Philadelphia might finally have a way to change that. The city is considering multiple reforms for the way it handles towing companies, including hiring a third party firm to assist in creating and maintaining a tow registry. L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said hiring a third party “looks like the solution we’re going to invest in.”   

The registry would essentially be a listing of all the addresses in the city in which tows are allowed. Rather than investigate disputes, L&I could decide whether a tow is legal by checking an address.  

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez helped get the conversation started on this effort in the spring when she introduced three towing bills. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, L&I and the Streets Department have been working together with Quiñones-Sánchez to figure out the best, most cost-effective manner for implementing the registry. For now they’re leaning toward hiring a third party to assist with the registry and make it a public-private effort. Other cities have done this, including Chicago and San Francisco.   

The system would ideally put the burden on tow companies. According to Eric Bodzin, Quiñones-Sánchez’s legislative aide, they would have to submit the addresses from which they are contracted to tow, get approval by the city. Tows would not be allowed from addresses that aren’t in the registry. Bodzin said the city is looking to make tow companies pay for the registry by increasing the price of towing licenses.  

In addition to the registry, Quiñones-Sánchez also wants to bring back an old regulation requiring a ticket for each tow. Right now, tow companies only have to produce a photo of an illegally parked car, upon request, to prove they legally towed a vehicle.

“You might get a photo from an obscure angle from a darkened alley,” Bodzin said. “In the most egregious cases we’ve had companies actually moving parked vehicles from a legal location to illegal location and moving them away. Suffice to say this has been an issue that has driven the city nuts.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...